Late Summer Reading for UU Leaders

20130822_094043How Not to Stay on Top, a recent article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, outlines how Blackberry and Wang both went from dominating their markets to being irrelevant.  Why?  They both “stubbornly clung to what they thought they were instead of what they needed to be.”

Keeping our faith communities what they need to be–healthy, relevant and sustainable–is one of the most important roles of congregational leaders.  Forward-thinking boards are also learning communities.  They pay attention to the changing context of the society around them and respond faithfully and strategically. They study trends and strategies as a group and then implement them as a team.

Here are some of my favorite titles that I’ve encountered over the past  year that your board may find useful:

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

(Berrett-Koehler, 2008)

Although Block doesn’t use the language of covenant, he describes the idea of how communal commitment and accountability can help organizations–such as our faith communities–invite people to serve our of a sense of possibility, generosity and gifts.   This book helped to inspire the standing-room-only workshop at the 2013 General Assembly: Beyond Contentment: Motivating Members to Do More by Mark Bernstein.

Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers by Nelson Searcy

(Baker Books, 2012)

This book is helping me to re-think how we set up leadership development programs in our congregations.  The current wisdom is to catch someone early in the membership process, work with them to assess their gifts and passions, then match them to a ministry.

Searcy recommends that–instead–you create a “ladders and lakes” system where congregants can swim in different “lakes” of ministry opportunities to discern their passions.  You do this by creating many different low-responsibility points of entry with time-limited commitments.  The next part of the process is developing “ladders” where congregants are given opportunities for roles of increasing responsibility and commitment.


The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else By Patrick M. Lencioni

(Jossey-Bass, 2012)

This is–hands down–my favorite organizational health and development book (so far).  Lencioni (author of Five Dysfunctions of the Team, Death by Meeting and Getting Naked) is clear, pragmatic and directive.   This book has two key points:

  • Build a cohesive team
  • Create and communicate clarity of mission and vision

The rest of the book provides the “how.”

The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations by Jacqueline J. Lewis

(Abdingdon Press, 2008)

Lewis is a former Alban Institute Consultant and currently the Senior Minister at the Middle Collegiate Church in lower Manhattan–an intentional and successful liberal multicultural faith community.  This book reinforces that notion that the method and the message of leadership need to be in alignment.  If you want to be a congregation that is inclusive of other cultures, we need to learn how to lead using the communication styles of those cultures.  In this case, Rev. Lewis shares that she spends 25% of her time mentoring the other leaders in her congregation, and encourages them to do likewise with the next tier of leaders.

Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All by Landon Whitsitt

(Alban, 2011)

This is another book that has offered a game-changing model of how we may want to structure our congregations in the future.   You can read an early draft of chapter 2The Church as Wikipedia.  (I have this as an e-book so it’s not in the picture above.)

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

The Adaptive Generation

overloadIn my last blog post I wrote about the Baby Boomers and the Millennials.  I received a few requests to write about the generational cohort labeled Gen X (rough birth years 1960-1985), sandwiched between the two and much smaller than either.  Most of the ministerial settlements last year were Gen Xers.  I wonder if this may be a sign of a sea change in the UU movement.

Bad Reputation?

First a little background on the how the media has maligned Gen Xers for the past couple of decades:

In a recent Salon article,  writes:


Around the time Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker” came out in 1991, journalists and critics put a finger on what they thought was different about the young generation of emerging adults – they were reluctant to grow up, disdainful of earnest action. The stereotype stuck – and it stuck hard. Business school management books define our generation as adaptable but reluctant to make decisions; and boomer managers call on Xers to finally take on leadership roles. Wake up and step up, X! the culture seems to be saying.


The article goes on to quote Neil Howe, the leading national expert on generational theory:

It’s about time, [Howe] says, for Xers to acknowledge limits and step up to the plate. “These Xers spending their lives with this sardonic view, never taking anything that’s happening in public at face value, but always to find the failing, that expresses a bigger problem with X — they are always outsiders,” he says. “These boomer CEOs say that they are maturing to the extent that they should be heading into leadership roles, but they simply don’t want to accept responsibility to the bigger community.“

A Different Lived Reality?

UU Gen X blogger Kimberley Debus responds to Howe:

What Howe misses here is that we WANT to step up. We WANT responsibility. We CARE DEEPLY about the bigger community. But we keep finding there’s no room from the Boomers above and we’re being pushed from the Millennials below. We are the Prince Charles of generations.

The Gift of Adaptation

I see gifts that Gen X brings to our congregations. They a generational cohort that has learned to live their lives faced by adaptive challenge after adaptive challenge.  They are quick to see the broken parts of our governance and the “stuck” parts of our culture.

Another key difference of the Gen Xers is that instead of pooh-poohing all things Christian, they are learning strategy and skills from the missional evangelical churches. The Red Pill Brethren are an example of what missional UU church might look like.

When Gen Xers find they can’t break into leadership, they often creatively “hack” the institutional homeostasis when they don’t have the power to change the system. Congregations that actively recruit Gen Xers into leadership increase their own adaptability to the changing context.  I invite you to look at the composition of your board of trustees.  What percentage is under the age of 50?

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Let’s Not Say “Show Me the Money”

There can be a significant cultural divide between baby boomers and millennials in our congregations, which is obvious to the millennials, but often invisible to the boomers.   I was reminded of this after seeing various reactions on Facebook to a recent article on CNN’s Belief blog, Why millennials are leaving the church, and the video Church Shop created by a group of spirited Presbyterian young adults.

There are two major themes in the message that millennials are trying to deliver.

The first is that the message coming from the church should not be opposed to science nor to lived experience. Millennials understand that they can be spiritual and ethical and believe in evolution and support gay marriage.  We Unitarian Universalists are way ahead of the curve on this and are pretty good at saying so on our websites.  Millennials should be flocking to our churches, right?  They often do check us out if they are willing to give church a second chance.

The second theme in the millennials’ message is the one I want every congregational leader to hear with an open heart:

Millennials are looking toward faith communities as a way of helping them deepen their own faith and to make the world a better place.  They also are wise to the fact that they will likely never be as affluent as those born before 1958, but instead of reacting with bitterness or cynicism, Millennials  are responding with a creative energy that is outwardly mission-focused and pragmatic.

HStressed Over Moneyere is where our UU congregations often fall short.  Instead of seeing the gift that this generation can bring to our faith communities, financially comfortable members often characterize Millennials as a drag on the church because their financial contributions aren’t at a comparable level.  Older members might see Millennials’ reluctance to join committees as disinterest, where in fact these young adults aren’t interested in joining committees unless their time will result in some significant mission-focused action.  The physical building is not as important as what happens inside, and what happens inside is not as important as how that affects the world outside.  The core values between the generations are similar, but the emphasis has changed.

Generational theory shows parallels between the G.I. Generation and the Millennials.  Both are civic-minded institution-builders.  The G.I. Generation had the resources to focus on the financial, and many church endowments are the beneficiaries of their providence.  This new generation will not have the same financial opportunities as their earlier counterparts, but they are creatively meeting today’s challenges with the resources that they do have.  I hope our congregations see their potential and help to nurture and support them as they respond to the future with the limited resources that have been left to them.

(note: this video contains mild profanity)

Your Trash, Another’s Treasure

trashHow do we find volunteers for the different jobs in our congregation?  How do we fire a volunteer who doesn’t perform?  How do we renew a committee stuck in stale ideas and that repels any new committee members and their potential energy?

Volunteer recruitment and dealing with volunteers who don’t follow through was the topic of an “Open Space” time during last week’s Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, WI.  There, Bonnie Blosser, the Director of Lifelong Learning at The Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, shared her framing of how she works with volunteers, and what follows is from that conversation.

One of the not-so-secret secrets of volunteer recruitment is to find out what each member’s gifts and passions are and help them find a role that feeds them.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you match them with something they are already good at (recruiting a grade school teacher to teach RE for example).  It may be something that they are interested in pursuing that might seem to be a bit of a stretch (e.g. asking the engineer about serving on the membership committee).  If someone is being fed–i.e. being energized by what they are doing–they are less likely to burn out or disappoint.

The flip side of this is that if someone is filling a volunteer role out of a sense of duty or as a favor, and that role or task drains their energy, they are likely to disappoint or burn out.  This is where Bonnie’s framing comes in.

When she has a volunteer who she suspects is in a role or has a task that is draining, she has a conversation with them that goes somewhat like this:

I notice that doing “A” seems to make you light up, while doing “B” seems to feel like a real burden to you.  I know that “A” is not everyone’s cup of tea, so your doing it and loving doing it is a great gift.
I know of a couple of people who would find great joy in doing “B” similar to what you feel doing “A.”  Would you be willing to let go of “B” so that someone else who might love it could pick it up?


If we left “B” undone for a while, it’s likely that someone who might enjoy doing it would offer to pick it up and bring their own creativity to it, similar to what you are experiencing with “A.”

Like the old saying goes:  One person’s trash is another one’s treasure.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

Leadership Development Consultant

Central East Regional Group



“Cruel Summer” Services

Sky at SunsetHas something like this ever happened to you when you’re travelling during the summer and decide to check out the local UU congregation?

You check their website, find out the service time and see that the topic is “The Secret Life of Bees,” the title of one of your favorite novels.  But when you arrive, you realize that the speaker is a professional bee-keeper, and the service feels more like a commercial for beekeeping than a worship experience.  The person playing along with the hymns gets the right notes, but the tempo makes it hard to sing.

If you are already a committed UU, you might just roll your eyes or curse under your breath. But if you are someone looking for a spiritual home, you will likely cross this church off your list — even if other members give you the standard not-so-great-lay-led-service caveat “We pride ourselves on having many voices in the pulpit. We hope you come back because the service is different each week.”

In a recent conversation on Facebook about a similar experience, the Rev. Jake Morrill shared this story:

My sister and I both grew up very active as UU’s.  When she and her new husband moved to (a new community) twenty years ago, she took him to a summer service that featured a chemistry professor giving a dry lecture and a slide-show.  They never went back.  Now, she’s a dynamos for the Methodists, organizing mission trips, community-wide justice projects, etc.  Theologically, she’s as Universalist as they come.  I always think what a loss it was for Unitarian Universalism that we lost my sister and her family  that summer Sunday…

As I read this story, I began to think about the covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and in relation to our covenant with our highest values and commitments.

When someone walks through a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s doors for the first time–after having read the promise of the “free faith” on UUA and congregational websites–don’t we have an obligation to offer the best expression of Unitarian Universalism that we can muster?  And if one of our congregations falls short of that promise, don’t we have an obligation–as Unitarian Universalists committed to our best expression of who we are– to share our observation of this disappointment and invite them to do better?

And if we are leaders or members of a congregation who receives such feedback offered with a loving heart and an eye to our highest aspirations, isn’t it our obligation to hear it with an open a humble heart?

Being in covenant with one another requires both courageous truth-telling and open-hearted listening.  Our UU leaders need to develop both skills…


Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

The Path Taken

conflict resolution“Conflict”, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

All too many leaders in our congregations, however, see conflict or resistance as inherently evil.  In this way of thinking, the goal is to deny the conflict or suppress it in an effort to maintain the illusion of harmony.  Savvy leaders know that conflict in a healthy congregation is to be welcomed and cultivated; that out of conflict comes creativity and new ideas and energy.  The key is how the leader meets and responds to the resistance that is causing the conflict.

Belgian Luc Galoppin,, a wonderfully inventive organizational change manager, says that we have a choice when our goals or ideas are met with resistance.  We can respond with revenge or we can respond with respect.  Taking the revenge path means pushing harder to get your way when there is resistance.  The result of this tactic is usually greater resistance.  So, in order to meet this increased resistance, one has to push even harder.  Eventually, you reach a state of indifference on the part of the resister.  “Fine, have it your way”, they may say.  “I don’t care anymore.”  “Whatever.”   In this scenario, the leader has created what Galoppin calls an energy drain.  Game over.  Resistance has been defeated.  Congregational life goes on, albeit less inspired, less motivated, and less energized.

The other path that leaders can take when faced with resistance is one of respect.  It begins with remembering that everyone we meet is facing a great battle and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It means listening for why they care about the issue; taking the time to understand the underlying meaning, intentions, hopes and dreams of the other.  It means not taking it personally, even if the reaction of the other was clearly intended to hurt you.  In taking the path of respect, the leader strives for open communication and collaboration in negotiating a solution that will resolve the conflict and move the congregation forward.  The leader commits to staying “at the table” until this work is done.  This process, says Galoppin, is the source of our energy and keeps us in the ballgame.

Following the path of revenge stems from the need to be right.  Following the path of respect stems from the need to be in relationship.

As a Unitarian Universalist, which path makes more sense to you?

Mark Bernstein, Consultant, Central East Regional Group

Here comes the judge! Learning to cultivate curiousity…

gavelI grew up eating a lot of ethnic northern European foods. I would often get comments in the workplace lunch room about the leftovers I had brought in that day.  I remember one comment about “what a strange food combination” I was eating (sauerkraut with a dollop of sour cream) that made me feel really defensive and reactive. Both the person who made the comment and I were perplexed by my reaction at the time, but I’ve recently been given a framework that has helped me make sense of that incident.

The framework is from a recent Intercultural Competency Training that I took, the same model that is being used in the Who Are Our Neighbors program being offered to ministers (and will later be offered to others) by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) .

The co-worker was perplexed because she thought she was just expressing curiosity about food she had never seen before.  What neither of us understood at the time was that she was doing so from a place of judgment — i.e. that she held the framework of what foods were “normal” and what foods were “strange.”  I now understand my own reactivity as being seen as “strange” and “not normal” by eating food that was very much a part of my cultural identity.

The lesson I’m trying to learn as I cultivate my own intercultural competence is that the “new normal” is that there is no “normal,” at least when it comes to the expressions of our Unitarian Universalist faith that are cultural. Instead of being judgmental from our own cultural lens, we can practice dialogue that helps us to listen to and understand how others live in and interpret the world.

How might this look?


“You used the word “God” 14 times in that sermon.  Isn’t that a bit excessive?”


“I notice you used the word “God” a lot in your sermon.  What is your understanding of that word?”


“It’s alright to have folk music every once in a while, but it’s important that we not deviate from the excellent classical music that is part of our reputation.”


“Folk music is not my favorite type of music in the service, but I notice that you were enjoying it.  Tell me about what you were experiencing.”


“You brought Styrofoam cups?!?  Don’t you know how damaging that is to the environment?”


“I see you brought some cups.  I’m curious as to why you chose that particular kind.”

Developing this practice of starting from a place of curiosity rather than judgment creates an atmosphere where dialogue can create a shared, negotiated understanding because we can learn about the underlying identities and values that support our preferences.

-Post by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

If You Build What?

field of dreamsIn a scene from the movie, Field of Dreams, the protagonist Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner and the fictional writer and social activist, Thomas Mann, played by James Earl Jones, are at Fenway Park in Boston.  They’re talking about the reasons why Mann dropped out of mainstream society when Kinsella asks him, “What do you want?” “ I want them to stop looking to me for answers”, Mann responds. “Begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy!”

Pointing to the concession stand, Kinsella hesitantly says, “No, I meant… what do you want?”

“Oh!”, Mann laughs, “A dog and a beer.”

Similarly, when congregations contact me asking for assistance in growing, now my first response is “What do you want?”  Do you want to grow in numbers?  Do you want to be free from conflict?  Do you want to make a difference in your local community?  Do you want members to be more involved in congregational life?  Do you want a greater sense of spirituality in your worship services and in your interactions with each other?  What do you want?

Often, looking to their mission as a guide for determining what a congregation wants is ineffective.   Many mission statements try to say so much that they wind up saying virtually nothing about what the congregation wants.  Here’s one of my favorite samples: The mission of name withheld to avoid possible lawsuit or at least having that congregation angry with me  is to build and sustain a welcoming, caring, inclusive community for all ages that nurtures each person’s lifelong journey of faith informed by reason.  Dedicated to peace and celebration, our sacred space provides a supportive environment in which we can create lives of integrity, service, and joy.  We call upon ourselves and one another to live our Unitarian Universalist principles in our communities and in the larger world, striving for social justice and caring for our planet Earth.

Huh?  I’m sorry. What is it you want???

The concept of congregational polity as a Unitarian Universalist concept doesn’t just mean that congregations have the right to govern themselves as they see fit.  It also means that they can be whatever they want to be.  That’s why there is no pat answer to the question, “How can we grow?”  The question that congregations must wrestle with is, “What do you want?”

The answer may not be as simple as “a dog and a beer”, but it doesn’t have to be much more complicated.



Putting the “Shared” in Shared Ministry

batonOne of the most important factors in a vibrant congregation is a high level of covenantal trust between the minister and the lay leaders.  When I say covenantal, I intentionally mean the promises made between the leaders and members and in service to that which is greater than the congregation itself, articulated in the mission.

In a recent Facebook post, Peacebang wrote:

A personal opinion: The most important service parish ministers can provide in this era is to constantly encourage, equip, facilitate, connect members of the congregation in living out their own ministries and connecting to a vibrant, shared mission. (emphasis mine) Ministers should be given the authority to assure that the church staff is effectively serving the mission of the church, and that includes hiring and firing power. It takes too much lay energy to supervise staff, and it sets up triangulated relationships that can steal years of healthy functioning from congregations (and frequently does — ! If I had a dime for every story I’ve heard, I could pay my first month’s mortgage with that pile of dimes). Healthy, living congregations have made the shift from seeing clergy as service providers to each individual and family (especially the big givers, amirite?) to someone who serves the mission of the congregation. Different. Less “people-pleasery.” The minister’s chief public function for the congregation is to lead regular worship that beautifully and powerfully expresses the congregation’s relationship to God/Ultimate, as put forth in beautiful, effective liturgy. In this model, the congregation has less interest in talking about the minister and much more interest in talking about their ministry. #paradigmshift

She posts a more detailed reflection which includes:

Are leaders in your community allowed to actually lead? Or do they have permission only to establish careful, traditional agendas and to ask for permission for every tiny step they take toward institutional health and mission-fulfillment? For every step forward, is there an interminable process of obtaining permission from every critic and worrier? Why? Who holds your congregation hostage?

To be fair, (and as Peacebang indicates with her hashtag) this requires a paradigm shift. Some congregations and ministers are already living into this trust-based, mission-based, permission-giving way of doing church.

One of the best books that I have read about empowering others is a book called Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman.  I would love to see every minister, religious educator and lay leader read it!


Details, Details!

Businessman Filing InformationImagine that your congregational leaders are talking to the bank loan officer in anticipation of a major capital campaign project.  The loan officer asks who has the authority in your congregation to sign for the loan.  “Why, our president!”  The loan officer then asks to see your bylaws to make sure that the president indeed has that authority,  Then they ask to see the minutes from the congregational meeting to make sure that the president was duly elected.

But, wait!  The minutes are a little fuzzy on the election of the slate of officers.  The slate was accepted by acclamation, but the minutes did not actually mention that there was a vote according to parliamentary procedure.  Suddenly, your ability to get a loan is in danger!

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about allowing space for creativity, and creating a permission-giving environment for the ministry of the congregation.  But there are also areas of congregational leadership where you run a tight ship, especially when it comes to bylaws, minutes, voting procedures and financial records.